animation artist
Art Business

An Animation Artist’s Journey from College to Career

Chicago-based artist Mack O’Conor is a recent graduate of DePaul University, and an aspiring animation artist well on his way to achieving his career goals.

O’Conor did not have the typical college experience. Before attending DePaul University, O’Conor was enrolled as an industrial design student at Purdue University, but decided to transfer because the field was not the right fit for him. After leaving Purdue, he attended the Chicago Institute of Art, where he discovered his initial interest in animation. After a few months at this trade school, he applied to DePaul’s animation artist program, where he completed his college education.

O’Conor has been drawing since he was young, always turning towards a basic pencil and paper as his medium of choice. His natural talent in the arts has enabled him to develop the skills needed to get through the competitive art school environment, as well as position himself for a fulfilling career post-college.

Artrepreneur interviewed O’Conor to gain insight into what it’s like to be an art student navigating the college experience, and understand what the “real world” is like for animation artists once they graduate.

Forging a Career as an Animation Artist

KM: How old were you when you took up art?

Mack O’Conor : I have been drawing since I was a little kid. When I was fifteen I began drawing what I call my “little guy.” A lot of students have that one doodle they love to draw, and that is what my “little guy” is for me. I grew up loving comic books, so I take bits and pieces from different comics and apply them to my guy. It is an enjoyable way for me to challenge myself, practice my skills, and expand my creation.

KM: What is your favorite artistic medium of choice?

Mack O’Conor: My favorite artistic medium of choice are pencil and paper because they are so real. I love to paint, but I have never been someone who will go get a paint set and get down to it. I like the accessibility of a piece of loose-leaf paper and a pencil because they are so easy to come by and there is so much you can do with these simple things.

KM: Why did you choose to pursue a career as an animation artist over a career in fine arts?

Mack O’Conor: I have a strong skillset in both fine arts and animation, and through my schooling as an animation artist I have noticed that there is a hybrid between the two, where one hand really helps the other. I love fine art and have respect for it just like everyone should, but I like the simplicity of animation art. Cartoons are easy and fun, and my eyes have always gravitated towards that style.

college experience
A still frame from O’Conor’s Capstone project.

KM: Why are you passionate about being an animation artist and the field of animation?

Mack O’Conor: Aesthetically of course, but more than that I love what movies can do – like any art platform, they can inspire others. Whether it is a Pixar movie or whatever studio it is, they always spread positivity and put a smile on people’s faces.

KM: Do you have someone that inspires you?

Mack O’Conor: When I was younger I was fortunate enough to take classes in New York City, where I learned from two great graffiti artists. They helped me develop as an artist and figure out my personal expression. Aside from them, I was a fan of the Adventure Time cartoon shows. They are very loose and comical, and how I see my work being.

Using the College Experience to Attain Professional Goals

KM: Did your college experience prepare you for work after college?

Mack O’Conor: Yes, my teachers taught me what I needed to know, and now it is about the work that I put into it as an individual. The college experience is all about using the professors for their knowledge, and then having personal integrity and ambition that will lead you to a success animation career path after college.

KM: What is your advice to students putting together portfolios?

Mack O’Conor: Diversity. It is important to be as versatile as you can so when you are applying to jobs your portfolio shows that you have a large skillset.

KM: How do you build a resume as an art school student?

Mack O’Conor: You build a resume by participating in different extracurricular activities. I have friends that do apprenticeships with teachers. They go to grade schools and teach young students animation or any style of art. Putting yourself into the art world and doing different things, whether they are paid or not, shows a future employer that you used your college experience to develop a passion, and that are very interested in what you want to do.

KM: Did your skill set grow by going to school for art?

Mack O’Conor: Yes, my artwork matured – I learned so much, including the fundamentals of art and technical things like framing or composing my pieces differently. Learning from experts in my field of study helped me grow so much as an artist.

KM: Is going to school for art competitive?

Mack O’Conor: It sure is competitive, but it comes back to your attitude. You have to be willing to accept that there are millions of talented people in the world. At school, I used my classmates’ unique talents to my advantage. By having a good relationship with them, at most times they were willing to share their work, design process, and inspirations. Art classes are an amazing collaborative environment to be a part of, and something you should take full advantage of during your college experience.

KM: Have you ever pulled an all-nighter?

Mack O’Conor: Many, many all-nighters. For an animation artist, projects take forever to complete, but college is all about figuring out how to budget your time best, so a few all-nighters helped me figure out time management.

animation artist
“Horned Fellow,” a work created by O’Conor for a pottery class at DePaul University.

KM: Being someone that went to both an art school and a more traditional college, which do you think positions you better for a job?

Mack O’Conor: From my experience either one will get you where you want to be. If you put the effort in, you can and will figure out how to get where you want to be.

KM: What are your personal goals as a recent graduate?

Mack O’Conor: I have always wanted to work for as an animation artist at a big studio like Pixar or Blue Sky , but I know it will take a lot of hard work to get there. So, for right now I have my five- and ten-year goals. In five years, I would like to get my foot in the door at a smaller company, and have developed a strong animation artist portfolio. In 10 years, I would like to be working on a big animation movie. As a long-term goal, that I have been working on for awhile, I would like to do something with the “little guy” I have created.

KM: What is the best piece of advice you can give to an art student?

Mack O’Conor: Stay true to what you believe. There is so much pressure to follow a certain path; for me, coming from a family that is new to the art thing, it is a little bit of a mystery. It makes me happy when people say stick to what is right for you, not what is right for your parents or friends. It is ok and good to be different and do something with that.

How do you navigate the college experience? Let us know in the comments!


About the author

Kate Mackie

Kate is an intern at Orangenius.

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